You used to have to remember when the Battle of Hastings was and your twelve times table. Today, there’s Wikipedia and your mobile phone. It’s not just the way that we learn that is changing, it’s what we learn and how we use that knowledge.
In a previous life, i used to work in museum education, in building conservation. When preserving old buildings, you had to understand the Lime Cycle. The process of taking chalk, burning it, slaking it and making lime mortar. I can still remember most of it, but not the details. Luckily, i don’t need to any more. No sooner have i thought about it, than i’ve googled it and found this: http://www.britishlime.org/edu_lime01.php. Everything you could want to know about the Lime Cycle (and if this one isn’t good enough, there are plenty of others to choose from). Clearly easy access to reference materials isn’t the same as ‘knowledge’, but the absolute ease of access to materials is certainly significant.
Part of my ‘expertise’ used to come from knowledge, but today, that knowledge is far more readily available.
A lot of the training we do today relates less to ‘facts’ and more to frameworks. When we teach Influencing Styles or Sales Skills, we focus on conversational frameworks, on how to flex your style and how to integrate new knowledge and skills into conversations. Increasingly, we look at behaviours and implementation. It’s quite a heavily vocational approach, but built on a framework of theory and fact.
One of the things that we sometimes miss out is teaching diagnostic skills and problem solving frameworks. The vast resources available online have definitely led to a rise in Wikipedian Graduates, who are able to access information fast, but often don’t demonstrate an ability to process information, synthesise it into existing frameworks, discern between ‘authoritative’ sources and opinion, or seek to present balanced points of view.
It’s the difference between thinking that the answer to a question is ‘out there’ somewhere, waiting for you to hit the right search term, or thinking that you can construct an answer yourself, based upon multiple sources. The difference between what i see often, which is something quoted from Wikipedia (or whatever source) and what i want to see, which is the quote, followed by discussion of what the person thinks, based on that and other sources. It’s the difference between regurgitating facts and creating a narrative, supported and evidenced by facts.
As knowledge becomes more widely available, free and plentiful, so the quality of sources becomes more important, and so the ability to synthesise that knowledge effectively becomes more valuable. Simply being able to access data is no longer a valuable skill, being able to do something with it is. Understanding the difference between ‘user generated’ and ‘peer reviewed’ is.
We can address this, to a degree, in how we design learning solutions. Instead of just ‘assessing’ people by testing knowledge, we can use holistic, scenario based assessments, where we look for people to follow a more comprehensive methodology. We may ask people to analyse situations, to carry out diagnostic activities, even to choose which particular diagnostic tools are most suitable. Rather than just asking people to demonstrate knowledge, we want them to make decisions, justify the reasons for those decisions, understand the impacts of the decisions that they take and look at consequences down the line. It’s less important to understand what they know, than to understand how they can use that knowledge to make decisions and base those decisions on a fundamental understanding of the situation.
Technology gives us easy access to data, but we still need the skills to use it effectively. That’s what differentiates us from the machines.